At the new Hello Nori in downtown Vancouver, customers sit on stools affixed to a U-shaped wooden bar. Overhead, hanging wooden pillars create the distinct feeling you are sitting under a massive wave. In the centre of the bar is like a kind of sushi-focused theatre in the round. The product is a sushi purist's dream: Perfect hand rolls served one at a time.
Hello Nori is a concept from first-time restaurateur Jean-François Eap and Jennifer Zhang, and the restaurant at 1165 Robson Street opened its doors in mid-February. It won't be long now until Hello Nori expands its reach in the region; up next are outposts at Park Royal in West Vancouver and at Brentwood in Burnaby. Ambitious plans find Hello Nori already looking into going in at YVR Airport, as well as getting the fifth location up and running within the year, though there is no location secured just yet.
Laser-focused menu: Just sushi hand rolls
While the scope of the business might be broad, the focus of the food is tight. There are no platters heaving with pieces of nigiri packed shoulder-to-shoulder alongside cut rolls heaped with sauces and garnishes. No brimming bowls of edamame, no towers of tempura, not a noodle in sight.
Hello Nori is laser-focused on hand rolls: Warm, seasoned rice wrapped in a mind-blowingly crisp piece of fresh nori. Inside, your choice of veg or seafood filling; keep it as simple as strands of sliced cucumber or as decadent as meaty morsels of truffle lobster.
The menu at Hello Nori is done checklist-style and is in the hands of longtime Vancouver chef Jay Pugong (most recently head chef at Minami). Choose from three set menus of four, five, or six hand rolls, order hand rolls a la carte, or mix and match. When it comes to individual pricing, the spectrum ranges from a cucumber hand roll at $3 to Truffle Lobster at $8 apiece.
There are about a dozen kinds of hand rolls, like smoky torched unagi streaked with a bit of sweet sauce, or a memorable spicy tuna that doesn't temper its punch with a bunch of mayo, but rather walks that fine line between a deep heat and the pure flavour of the fish.
If you watch any cooking competition show you've heard judges pontificate on how simple dishes are often the hardest to execute because there's nowhere to hide. The hand rolls at Hello Nori are beautifully simple, with each well-executed item playing its part in perfect harmony with the others. To be able to succinctly bite into nori without a speck of stretch or chew is something you don't get to do all that often. Same for how refreshing it is to have freshly-grated wasabi and not the standard-issue paste.
More to come in the next Hello Nori locations
Pugong is very passionate about Japanese cuisine and sushi, and brings a great deal of enthusiasm to the project. The chef, who has been working in Vancouver sushi restaurants for 16 years, has some exciting plans for how to bring in other elements of Japanese dining once Hello Nori moves into its space in Park Royal, and in the meantime is keen to get the restaurant on board with the Ocean Wise program.
The staff at Hello Nori all play a role in every diner's meal, and you can see them at work and interact (safely, and adhering to current COVID-19 measures) as they move about the space inside the U-shaped bar, whether they are touching the flame to the unagi to bring out that mouthwatering char, or pouring locally-made sake into your cup and traditional masu, a wooden box that carries the overflow. They'll teach you how to hold the cup with one hand and the box with the other for sipping, and that you can pour what's in the box back into the cup when you're ready. The sake has a crisp, clean taste and is lovely to sip as you enjoy each hand roll presented to you one by one.
Eap says the staff at Hello Nori are all part of a tip-pooling program, and a 15% gratuity is automatically added to each bill, which is then shared evenly among everyone working the floor. To that end, the team's wages easily become more competitive, and they don't have many dull moments on shift, since there is so much for everyone to do in order to keep things moving for all the diners. You'll easily interact with several employees while you're at the bar; one may top off your pile of fresh, crisp pickled ginger while another will watch carefully to ensure you aren't sliding off your stool to head to the restroom or still working on the last bites of a roll before setting your next hand roll down before you.
The space was designed by Zhang, who is behind Vancouver design firm Concrete Cashmere, and takes inspiration from the Pacific ocean and the notion of "wabi sabi," the beauty of imperfection, in its meld of elements and textures.
Hello Nori in Vancouver is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.. We can expect both the Park Royal and Brentwood locations to open sometime this spring.